Thursday, December 22, 2016

Grand Canyon: Rim to Rim to Rim

There are about a dozen guys in Athens that I run with fairly regularly, and I'm not exaggerating when I say they're like family. We even have our own Christmas get together.

Anyway, one day a couple of years ago, maybe in November or December, I was running with Chris, and he said, "I've been thinking about running across the Grand Canyon. What do you think?" The rest of the run, we were talking about how and when. We talked to Lanier about it and floated out some possible dates, thinking late April or early November. We opted for early November. I sent a Facebook message out to the guys saying, "Grand Canyon, rim to rim to rim, November 2016. Who's in?" Mind you, this was June of 2015.

Then next thing I knew, the Facebook inbox was dinging with "In." "In." "In."

So, that's how this crazy idea was born.

After months of planning and training and anticipation, the day to fly finally arrived. 

We divided into two groups. Chris and his wife, Lindsey, and my wife and I all flew into Las Vegas. That was fun and we did take the time to see Hoover Dam, etc., but that's not what this blog is about.
Lanier, Danny, Lance, Max, Jordan, and Mark all flew into Phoenix on Thursday. We all met at the Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon on Friday. (BTW, I highly recommend that hotel. It was very nice, cozy, comfortable, friendly, and affordable.) After a mediocre and overpriced dinner, we retired to our rooms early for the obscenely early start to the Rim to Rim to Rim adventure.

Lanier, Jordan, Mark, Chris, and I planned to do the full R2R2R while Max, Lance, and Danny planned to do Rim to River to Rim. They were going to see the sights and enjoy the canyon before making the trek up Bright Angel and out. They did see some cool sights that we did not, including Plateau Point.

We had no plans of going fast. We just wanted to enjoy the experience. So, in order to finish at any reasonable time of day, we had to start by 4:00 AM. We decided to all start together and the Rim to River folks would just finish sooner and enjoy the South Rim.

The plan was to take South Kaibab to North Kaibab back to Bright Angel and out. It turns out that there was no parking at South Kaibab, so my wife graciously volunteered to shuttle the drivers from the Bright Angel parking lot over to the South Kaibab trail head at 4:00 AM. I'm a lucky man to have such a wonderful wife! 

South Kaibab to Phantom Ranch

One of the things that stands out in my mind as we waited to begin our journey is the sheer number of stars that were visible. I've never seen that many stars before. Everywhere I've been, there is just too much light. It was truly amazing and I didn't mind the extra 30 minutes waiting on the drivers to get shuttled back to begin our journey.
Car headlight photo just before we begin at 4:30 AM
After a photo, we took off on our journey, headlamps lighting the way. We took it very, very slow on the way down. We had no idea what to expect. We really couldn't see anything other than just the few feet in front of us. None of us wanted to fall a few thousand feet to our deaths, and we knew that the trail we were on looked something like the photo below in the daylight.
South Kaibab in the daylight. Not that we saw it in the daylight...
Another thing I remember fairly distinctly is the unique experience of shining a headlamp toward the inside of the canyon and it hitting absolutely nothing. It seems obvious, but it still felt very eerie to experience it. If your headlamp is pointed straight ahead, you see the ground and/or the person in front of you. Turn to one side and you see the rock wall of the canyon. Turn to the other side, and the light doesn't reflect off of anything. There's just abyss. That was very cool.

Even though we were going at a very slow pace, the time passed quickly to sunrise. We stopped for a quick snack and we were just a mile or so from the Kaibab Suspension Bridge over the Colorado River.

We continued on North Kaibab trail to Phantom Ranch and arrived just as they were opening up for early breakfast at 7:00 AM. We stopped just long enough to fill our bottles and took off. The rim to river crew continued with us for a short way and then turned around and waited for the store to open for the day. We said our good-byes and continued on North Kaibab Trail. 

On to Cottonwood Campground

As we left Phantom Ranch, the 5 R2R2R guys were all in pretty good spirits. We were moving along pretty well as the trail hugs Bright Angel Creek and is a gradual uphill. I remember commenting that this would be some good running on the way back. Just a nice gradual downhill along the creek. We were still taking it pretty easy through here. We still have lots of miles and we haven't even really begun to climb yet.

During this section, we got passed a couple of times by others who were also out doing R2R2R.

It was also during this section that I figure the guys got tired of hearing me. I kept saying stuff like... "It's so beautiful out here!" "I can't believe we're actually doing this." "Look at the different layers of rock! Wow! That's so cool!" "How do you suppose this canyon happened? I mean, there are lots of other rivers that don't cut canyons so it couldn't be just that the river eroded it over time. Something else had to make this happen." "I can't believe we're doing this!" "Wow. It sure is beautiful out here." "Are you guys soaking this in?" Over and over. I'm sure I annoyed them.

We came to a fork in the trail that went down to Ribbon Falls. We were a little unsure about what to do, but we didn't follow the sign for Ribbon Falls and stayed on what seemed like the straight trail. We never really figured out this trail.

As we began passing more and more people, we knew we were getting close to Cottonwood campground. We stopped here for a bit, ate, refilled all our water. and then got ready for the first real climb.

Up to the North Rim

After we left Cottonwood, the climb became less gradual. We continued to press on and we all continued to be in awe of the place. As we passed roaring springs, there was a sign that said "No Water at Supai Tunnel". Well, for whatever reason I thought we were at Supai Tunnel, so I didn't try to get water there. That was a mistake.

The trip up to the North Rim is nothing short of breathtaking. Words and pictures cannot adequately describe this place. It must be experienced. I'm out of superlatives to describe the run. There were views of the trail ahead climbing and hugging the wall of the canyon. There were views of the wall across the vastness. There were views of the wilderness beneath us. Pictures don't come close, but the one below is a good one.

As we came into Supai Tunnel, we tested the water faucet, even though we knew it was not on. We decided that would be a good time to stop for a quick break to eat. We all had enough water, but it was a little too close for comfort. We left there, not knowing exactly how far to the North Rim. I had forgotten my GPS charger and everyone else's GPS was showing obviously wrong mileage. We just didn't know.

On we climbed. We were all getting tired and so we slowed down considerably. You're battling both the climb itself and the altitude on this journey. This section just seemed to go on forever. For ever. After a while, we saw some hikers, and that let us know that we were getting closer. We thought we were getting really close. Like less than a mile close. So, I made the mistake of asking a couple of hikers about how far to the top. "Oh, about an hour and a half. Maybe more." WHAT!?!?!?! I agree with what my friend Mark said... "It felt like I just got kicked in the nuts and a little girl is pointing and laughing at me."

Ugh. We pressed on. We met up with a group from San Diego on the climb. It was good to chat with others doing the R3. One of the ladies was an LSU graduate which was interesting because Alabama and LSU were playing that evening. We talked a little trash which helped pass the time and misery for the rest of the climb. I think Chris said something about smelling a corn dog or something.

Anyway, when we got to the north rim, we stopped for a bit, but not long. Just a photo or two, a bladder and bottle refill, and then turn around. The water at the North Rim was cold and so very tasty. I may have overindulged in the water just a bit. It was windy and cool, and we were all drenched from sweating the climb. See, we were there.

One interesting thing about the North Rim was the trees. Trees are sparse and short on the South Rim and through the Canyon. As we got closer to the North Rim, there were more large trees. It wasn't a thick Appalachian forest, but it was thicker than I expected. From the North Rim, we had no views because of the trees. It wasn't good or bad, just interesting and not what I expected. 

The Return

Given how much of a struggle the North Rim climb was, I expected the return to be complete misery. It really wasn't. The gravity assisted descent from the North Rim was just the burst of energy we needed. We ran relatively quickly and had a lot of fun on the descent. We passed lots of hikers. We had lots of conversation. I may or may not have passed gas so bad that some folks a couple hundred yards behind me started yelling, "Eric! Do you need a wet wipe?"  Fun times. You'd never know that we had more than a marathon on our legs from this picture.

We stopped at roaring springs on the way back down. We had some food and a long restroom and water refill break. I was surprised by how quickly that time passed. We pressed on to Cottonwood Campground for another quick rest and refill. As we neared Ribbon Falls, we saw a trail that went to the right. We took it briefly, thinking that it would meet back up with North Kaibab trail, but decided to stay on the known trail. We thought it may be the end of the trail that we had seen on the way out, but we just weren't sure. While we still felt good, the last thing we wanted to do was to add unnecessary mileage.

Not long after this, I was running along with Chris and he tripped and fell. You know, sometimes a fall on the trail is slow. You see the trip. Then you see the stumble. Then you see the futile attempt to regain balance. Then  you may see a hand hit the ground. Some falls seem to last for seconds. This fall was the complete opposite of that. It happened so fast! I saw him kick a rock, and before I blinked, he was on his side on the ground. It was a hard fall. I came over to him to check on him and help out. As I'm standing over him, he says, "My phone! Get off my phone! You're standing on my phone!" I knew then that he would be okay. :) But it was a very hard fall and we took a couple of minutes to shake it off. 

The trip from Cottonwood campground to Phantom Ranch did seem very long on the way back. It was afternoon, and the temps were the warmest. It wasn't hot at all, maybe 75F, but it was the warmest. Remember how we mentioned that this would be easy running on the way back? Well, it wasn't exactly easy because our legs were tired. But it was some very nice running. I led and I really pushed the pace some on this section. I was running out of water because of the warmth, and I was ready to get some of the famous lemonade and to refill my water. It seemed to go on for ever. Not quite like the climb to the North Rim, but longer than expected. A lady on the trail accused us of leaving "human waste" on the trail. Um, no, it wasn't us. We packed everything out that we brought in and we only used the plentiful restrooms. I didn't appreciate it. I let her know it wasn't us, that we hadn't been on that part of the trail for hours. Oh well. 

As we got to Phantom Ranch, it was a glorious thing to get some lemonade. The stories are true. It's the best lemonade in the world. Don't miss it. I also bought a pack of oreos and devoured them. That was a mistake. Later, I would have the inevitable sugar crash and my stomach did not appreciate the sugar overload and let me know about it with a spell of nausea. 

We probably stayed a bit too long at Phantom Ranch, but on we went to climb out via Bright Angel Trail. Again, this is simply a beautiful run!

As we started the climb, we came across a very large boulder that was about to fall over. I'm so glad Mark was there to push it back up off the trial. 

Continuing on, I expected it to be uphill the whole way. But it wasn't. It was uphill, then downhill for a bit. That just felt wrong. I said that it was like taxes. We earn some elevation by climbing, then the trail just takes it back by making us go downhill. We pressed on, upward and onward. Dark settled in and we had to get out our headlamps again. We were at Indian Garden before I could eat again. The oreos had just done me wrong. Still, though, I think it was worth it! :)

The climb just kept getting harder and harder. It was dark. Everyone just wanted to be done. But the climb just kept going and going. It does seem like forever. This photo captures pretty much how it felt. 

On the way up, about a mile from the top, we passed a trio of hikers. One of them was in pretty bad shape. He was battling nausea and he said that his "knees wouldn't work any more". It turns out that he had just bitten off more than he could chew. He had attempted the Rim to River and back in a day and just wasn't quite up to the task. It was getting pretty cold, probably upper 30s, and he was shivering a bit. We stayed with him for a few minutes trying to see if we could help. Basically, he needed to be carried out of there. Chris gave him a pair of gloves. We stayed while they called 911, but then we had to continue on. There was really nothing we could do. We were going to do well to just get ourselves out of there and carrying another person just wasn't something we could do during mile 46 of a 46 mile run. The 911 operator told them pretty much that he had to get himself out of there. There are no rescue teams. There are multiple signs that say, "Down is optional. Up is mandatory." This is very, very true.

We hated to leave him behind and I did call the next day to check on him. Fortunately, he was okay. It was just a miserable night. Glad to know it worked out for him.

As we neared the top, we had no idea how close we were. We were talking about what runners sometimes talk about. Then, we heard Chris's wife joining in the conversation nonchalantly. Wow! We're here! We're done! We couldn't believe it!

Fifteen and a half hours. Eight of the best friends a guy could ever have. Memories that will last a life time. Yeah. I'd do it again.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Rocket City Marathon 2015

The marathon is special. It takes me a good six months to prepare to race a marathon.

Sure, training just to finish a marathon takes less time than that, and that is a noble goal that stretches most people. Finishing is a challenge and I respect everyone who tackles that challenge. I'm not denigrating that worthy goal. I'm merely pointing out that there is another level of marathoning, call it (because there is a book with this title) Advanced Marathoning

To race a marathon... To learn your body's capabilities such that you can pick the appropriate pace from the beginning and maintain that pace throughout the 26.2 miles and have nothing left at the finish, that's an art. It's an art because each race is different. It's an art because every time I've raced the marathon, there have been mistakes and imperfections, but those, along with the moments of precise pace and strategy, contributed to the beauty of the race. And each race has been unique.

Racing a marathon is special. It takes 6 months of your life. You're likely to get sick during that time. You're likely to have spikes in responsibility at work during that time. You may have a family emergency of some sort during that time. You may get injured. You're pretty likely to just plain lose motivation to run during that time. If you prepare to race a marathon, you'll have opportunities to overcome different kinds of adversity. 

And then comes race day. What if you don't feel well on race day? What if you have a motivation lull during race week? What if you have a family emergency the eve of the race? And then, the completely uncontrollable bogey... What if you have bad weather on race day? 

What if you have all of those? Well, you'll probably have a poor race.

December 12, 2015, all of those happened to me. And I had what I consider to be my worst marathon ever. 

Now that I've philosophized a bit... I really do like the new Rocket City Marathon course. It's really cool and still reasonably fast. It's a little more difficult than the 2013 version, but it is still a fast course. And this picture is great... I cannot recommend this race highly enough.

The numbers... Results are at I had three goals here. My A goal was a 3:05. I knew that the weather would not allow that to happen, so I abandoned that goal before the start line. My B goal was sub 3:10. You know, "three oh something". My C goal was to run a BQ time of 3:15. I missed all three of those goals. 

I ran a 3:19:39 which put me at 93rd overall and 12th of 133 in the 40-44 age group. I'm frankly embarrassed by that number, but looking back at the mistakes I made during preparation and on race day, it really is what I deserved and it is what I should have expected. 

So, what went wrong?

Well, let's start with race day. It was unseasonably warm and humid. Temps were in the mid-upper 60s during the race and the dew point was around 60. That really zapped me. Then, I had issues with digestion. This seems to mess me up far too often. I had to take an emergency number twp port-a-potty stop at mile 4.5. It was not pleasant, took longer than it should have, and that threw my hydration off a bit, too. When that was over, I was pretty far behind my C goal and I tried running hard to make up the time. Again, that wasn't very smart at all. 

I hit the 10k at 47:52 (about a 7:43 average pace) but I had been running pretty much 7:10 to 7:15 miles the whole time. So ugh. I hit the half timing mat at 1:38:34. From there, I'm thinking, "If I negative split this thing by two minutes, I can still break 3:15." But I was already tired at 13.1 and the back half is hillier. I thought about just quitting at 13.1 Just walking right to the arena and hanging out and waiting on the winners. It was warming up and I already felt pretty bad, so what was the point? But hey, I trained and I didn't have another marathon in mind to go to later. So I just hung on. I'm glad I did because quitting would have been just that for me. Quitting.

I still passed a lot of folks in the back half. But the climb up to the Space and Rocket Center completely zapped me. I saw my good friend Chris Ramsden coming out of the Space Center as I was entering, and I knew that he should have been way farther than a mile and a half ahead of me, so I knew it wasn't his day either. I yelled some encouragement anyway, but I figured that he didn't want to hear it and just wanted to be at the end.

And those miles from there through the Botanical Garden just drained me. They're rolling. And by the time I got out of there just after mile 20, I was done. I was feeling the harder effort from the early miles. For miles 21-25, it was all I could do to run 8 minute miles. I hit mile 21 at 8:07, and I said to myself, "NO! Okay. That's the last 8 minute mile I'll run. The rest will be below 8 minutes." Then I repeated that for miles 22, 23, 24, and 25. Ugh. 

When I looked at my watch at the one mile to go marker, I noticed that I had a chance to break 3:20. Well, you know, why not try? So I dug a little deeper and ran a 7:20 last mile to break 3:20 comfortably. I had to have something to reach for to just keep from giving up, so I'm glad I was close to that one arbitrary number on the clock. And I'm glad I didn't quit.
Eww. I sure was gross and sweaty at the end.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Make Progress

It's been a very slow and difficult three years since I ran a sub-3 marathon in 2012. Sometimes, it's hard for me to believe that I ever did that. So, here's what's happened since then.

I had a stress fracture in my right tibia in December of 2012 while training for a 50 miler. I wasn't as disciplined as I should have been in keeping my fitness in the water during the 9 weeks off from running and my fitness declined greatly. I came back very slowly and had an okay spring of 2013, all things considered.

During the late summer and early fall of 2013, I had a calf strain that was the worst I've ever had. I lost 9 weeks to that, which is the same amount of time that I lost to the stress fracture. I still wasn't at the fitness level before the stress fracture and my fitness declined even more. Again, I lacked discipline in maintaining fitness during a forced break from running.

After recovering from the calf strain, I slogged through the winter building my base and had a very mediocre finish at Mountain Mist 2014. A month later, Mount Cheaha completely humiliated me. I regrouped for the Chattanooga Stage Race, but again I wasn't as fit as I should have been and posted some slow times there. I just hadn't been doing the work. That's one of the things I love about running. You can't hide. If you don't do the work, everyone will know. Races are the ultimate accountability tool.

I decided that I'd build a big base through the winter and then hit the spring of 2015 with some shorter faster stuff and have a break out spring. Well, I built a big base. I completed the HTC Grand Slam. I threw in a 50 miler in between Recover from the Holidays and Mountain Mist just for good measure. I had a big base. Then, I got sick. I really didn't know what was wrong, but I just knew that I didn't feel well, ever. I struggled to run at all, let alone run fast or far. After a few nights of coughing, I was diagnosed with pneumonia. A shot and some pills later, and I felt better. The Levaquin did a number on my tendons (runners, NEVER take this drug), and I was out for over two weeks. Ugh. So much for leveraging the big base from the winter.

Barely two weeks later, I was diagnosed with pneumonia again. Two more weeks off, and this time I was referred to a specialist. A reasonably healthy guy shouldn't be getting pneumonia like that. The specialist ran all kinds of tests. I was poked and prodded in all kinds of ways. He found that I have histoplasmosis. (Google it if you want, but you may not want to ever be near me again. It's gross.) Well, soon after that, I was covered in a rash all over my body. My forehead, torso, arms, legs, even the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet. I was in complete misery for two weeks. And I couldn't take a steroid to help with the itching because of the histoplasmosis. Misery. But I've continued to take the histo medicine and now I feel great. I feel better than I have in a long, long time.

So here I am. Not as fit as I should be. Not as fit as I once was. And this whole post is my list of excuses for that. I'm wondering, can I ever be as fit as I was at 39? Has my window passed?

Well, I'm just going to be honest with myself. I know my fitness level right now. It isn't what I want it to be, but no good will come from pretending it's better than it is. I know that I can't handle the mileage I once did. I know that I can't hit the same splits on the track that I once did. I'm in 19:57 5k shape and I can handle about 55-60 miles per week. That's where I am. I can start right here, right now and I can improve.

And that's what I'll do.

I find palpable motivation from pithy sayings for some reason. Well, here's another that's my mantra for the rest of this year.

You can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can't make both.

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.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mountain Mist 2014

I love and hate Mountain Mist.

Really. I love it. It's unique. It draws a very talented and well trained field from all over. It's a different race every year. It's a huge party. It's a MUST DO. We're fortunate to have a race like that so nearby. Ultra runners all over the country know about this one.

Really. I hate it. It's so difficult. It's rocky. You have to sign up on the day registration opens or you'll miss it (and you can't miss it no matter how much you hate it). Old Railroad Bed trail is on the course, and I hate that trail. It beats you to death. It chews you up and spits you out.

Maybe I love it more for all the reasons I hate it.

Then I got a call from my boss on Tuesday. "I'm going to need you to be on a plane tomorrow." I replied, "For how long?" She said, "Until Friday." Sigh. After looking at so many options, I ended up with an itinerary that had me landing in Nashville at 11:00 PM Friday night. That meant I'd be home by 1 AM at the earliest. And I'd be coming from Pacific Time. The other thing I didn't think about was that when we landed in Atlanta, every restaurant in the airport was closed. No dinner. Not good. So, will Jack in the Box at midnight qualify as pre-race carb loading?  It'll have to.

But hey, I'm not in good shape anyway, so just run and have fun and see what happens.

To O'Shaughnessy
The changes to this course are brilliant. I always hated starting cold and having to run a sub-7 minute mile just to get to the trail-head before people who are too cautious on rocky descents. I really, really like the changes that gives 3 miles for the field to even out. So, I was able to run relaxed and ease into the race and still take the descent on Walnut Hill at a reasonable clip. The course was in rare form this year with so many icicles. It was beautiful. I just tried to relax and enjoy the first 6 miles. I made it there in roughly 58 minutes. I was pleased with that.

To Three  Benches
Several runners breezed past me as I refilled my water bottle at the aid station. So, on the descent down Warpath Ridge, I was hindered by the crowd. This was just too slow. After the gnarly descent, on the flatter and easier section, I got too relaxed and tripped over a rock and had one of the worst falls I've ever had trail running. My left quad took the brunt of the fall as I landed on a sharp rock and rolled over on my left side and took more rocks to the hip and side. My rule of falling is "Get up before it starts hurting." So I popped up and barely broke stride. A few hundred yards later, I realized that it hurt. A lot.

I enjoyed some nice conversation on Power Line Trail and followed a crowd up K2 to avoid exerting too much energy on the first major climb. All was well. I got stuck behind some slower folks again on Goat Trail and opportunities to pass just weren't there. I arrived into 3 benches at a busy time and had to fill my own water bottle. That's no problem, but I was using pre-filled cups and they were frozen. I got in and out as quickly as I could. I forgot to look at my watch. But I knew this section took longer than it should have.

To Fearn, the Halfway Point
This section was fairly uneventful, too. I was able to join Alex Clark and James Falcon and Brian Thompson for some really cool conversation. Stone Cuts is one of the coolest parts of this race. Here I am exiting stone cuts.
Runner Guns. Photo courtesy of Gregg Gelmis
It was good seeing Scott and Chelsea Sciavone at the aid station. It's nice when volunteers call you by name and specifically offer to help you. Volunteers make races work. I appreciate the help, guys. I left Fearn at 2:44-ish.

To Land Trust
I didn't feel too very tired coming out of Fearn. I knew that a beating was coming my way, but I've run the Land Trust trails more than anywhere else on the course. I actually felt pretty good and just cruised on High trail and had a pretty good descent with Sally Brooking (grand masters female winner) down Bluff Line. It was quite fun. I rolled into the Land Trust and pitched a tent. Seriously. I stayed here way, way too long. I ate a couple of crackers because I'd rather eaten snot than another GU. I drank some coke. I chatted. I looked for excuses not to take the beating that the next trails would give me. I left at 3:24.

To Trough Springs
I was right. Old Railroad Bed Trail and Alms House Trail just chewed me up. They beat me. I just could not find a rhythm running these trails. I've run these trails more than any section of trails on Monte Sano, and I stil run them slower than Nana texting. It's bad.

When I exited Alms House onto Waterline Trail, I was in a very low spot. I cursed Dink for dangling the carrot that is a 10 time finisher award. I was thinking to myself that I'd never run on trails ever, ever, ever again. I was considering retiring from ultras altogether. I was hating life.

Then, just at the base of the waterfall, I looked up. It was completely frozen. It was a stunningly beautiful view. I couldn't get over how awesome the view was. And I said, "This is why I do this. Let's go."

Coming in to Trough Springs aid station, I looked at my watch and noticed that it said 4:18. I knew that I had a chance to break 5:30. Ok, then. I didn't have another negative thought the whole race.

To the Finish
I knew that 5:30 wasn't in the bag. But I knew I could do it. I ran a good clip on Arrowhead Trail. This is another very good change to the course. I hated this section of Natural Well Trail. And my understanding is that the washout is now completely impassable. I passed several people on this stretch and also after the trail spits out on Natural Well Trail. I am horrible at the descent on Natural Well. Horrible. I got passed here by 3rd overall female Erin Looney. She crushed this descent. I caught her back at the bottom on what used to be slush mile. I knew that I had to run well on the bottom of McKay Hollow because I knew it would be dry today and I knew the climb was going to challenge me. I didn't blister it, but I did run it consistently. I made the climb pretty good, too, passing Sally Brooking here and a couple of other people on the uphill. At the top, I ran about 8:20 pace to the finish and passed 3 or 4 more.

Courtesy Gregg Gelmis

I was 12th in the 40-49 group. That's TWO SPOTS, only 30 seconds from getting a beanie. Man, I want one of those Mountain Mist beanies. I really should have gotten one this year. I was in good enough shape. I just had some bad luck the week before and I didn't take the race seriously enough. 

I'm getting a beanie. Soon. Next year.

And I want to close with a huge thanks to the volunteers, especially the volunteers on O'Shaugnessy where it was windy and cold. Just to name a few... Dink and Suzanne Taylor for putting on this first class event. Thanks to Carl Smith for timing services as always. Thanks to Madelyn Patton for checking me in without ID. Thanks to Gregg Gelmis for always giving us some great photos to remember these events. Thanks to Mona Parker for filling my bottle at O'Shaugnessy, the coldest and windiest aid station. Thanks to Scott and Chelsea Schiavone for helping out at Fearn. Thanks to the wonderful volunteers at Land Trust aid station. Thanks to Elle Trowbridge for her help at Trough Springs. Thanks to Jennifer Bicknell for helping out at the finish. I know I'm missing several, who specifically helped me today. Sorry!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Coming Back

So it has been quite a while since I posted here. Part of the reason is that I've been battling injury. I had the stress fracture that caused me to miss all of the 2012-2013 ultra season. I missed Lookout Mountain 50 Mile in 2012. I missed Recover From The Holidays 50k in 2012. I missed Mountain Mist in 2013. I had to settle for the 25k at Black Warrior in 2013.
Then I spent the spring coming back very slowly. I started to hit a stride in the summer in 2013. Then, my calf just would not quit hurting. I went through denial. Then I went through trying to just train through it. Then I accepted it and spent 3 or 4 weeks taking 3 or 4 days off and then testing it to see if it was better. All the test did was hurt and set me back. So, I decided to just take off until it no longer hurt to walk on it. That took about 7 or 8 weeks. So, I set myself back nearly 3 months by being dumb and stubborn.
So, 2013 just was not my year. I had a pretty good October and November building a base back up. I decided that I would try and train for the Knoxville Marathon. But here it is mid-January and my fitness just isn't coming along.
Punt Knoxville.
So, I'm going to try to run a few ultras this winter and spring and try to have a good summer and aim for a marathon PR in the fall.
I was able to pace the 3:30 group at Rocket City Marathon in 2013. I was able to comfortably break 5 hours at Recover From The Holidays 50k in 2013, so that was encouraging.
Next up is Mountain Mist 50k. Then, for the first time in 5 years I'm going to do Mount Cheaha.
And today, I ran 5x1k on the track. It was difficult and slow (3:45 per 1k). I thought I was gonna fall over on the last one. But during my cool down, I got that pleasantly tired feeling. I mean, I felt awesome. That feeling that makes me think, "this is why I run." I love that feeling.
I'm optimistic about the future.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mountain Mania 15k

The Mountain Mania 15k had its third running on June 8, 2013. I really had no idea that Decatur had such a hill. This thing was a beast! The t-shirt and Facebook page have "See the beast. Run the beast. Conquer the beast." And I like the logo.
Typically, the second Saturday in June is much hotter than this past Saturday was. We had really great weather for this race, in the low 60s at the start. The 7:00 AM start is really a great thing for this race, too.

I am not in race shape and I don't really want to race until the September/October time frame. So, it was a late decision for me to run this race. I needed a good marathon pace run, and I have done next to nothing on hills, so I thought I'd give a try at a hilly marathon pace run. I am really glad I signed up for this race!

It's a small race, about 100 runners or so. After the race, during the awards ceremony, the race director asked for feedback to improve the race. One person in the crowd jokingly said, "Make the course flatter!" To which the race director replied, "No, we're looking for a certain type of runner for this race, and y'all are it." I loved that reply!

The Race
I saw several people I knew before the race. Seeing people is the best part of racing. When I pin on a number, I really have to resist the urge to race. But Saturday, I told myself that I would resist that urge. I wasn't really sure who the competition was today. I knew that Colby Phillips could beat me if he were in shape and if he were racing. But he said that he would not be racing, but just doing an easy run. I know that David Rawlings is in killer Tri shape, maybe the best shape of his life. I know that he just ran a 10k PR at Cotton Row. Who else? I see some kids up front. You never know about them. Okay. Marathon pace (6:50 to 7:00) no matter what.

After a prayer (I really appreciate that.) and a few words thanking the sponsors, off we went. One kid shot out of the gate like a rocket! After about 30 seconds, I asked David, "Do you know that kid? Is he really that fast?" To which David replied, "We'll find out." Another runner said, "I wonder if  he knows this isn't a 5k?"

So, I just tucked in about 50-60 yards behind David. I was running alongside a guy named Jonathan and we chatted a bit about the competition for the day We took turns leading the tangents on the turns and stayed together for a couple of miles. Up about 50-60 yards ahead of David was another pair, a young kid and a guy who I would meet after the race, Jay McNeill. Then, way out front, was Ieden Leckenby. At the one mile mark, which Ieden had run well under six minutes, I knew that he was for real.

So, I realized that I was in 5th or 6th place with Jonathan in the other. Marathon pace. Marathon pace. Don't race. Marathon pace.

The second mile has one of the most brutal climbs I've ever encountered in a road race. Yes, it is worse than Cotton Row's Mountainwood. It's really not even close. I was trying to maintain marathon pace effort, and I ran that second mile in 8:08. Brutal. At the top, I was glad for some flat land and I recovered fairly quickly and settled back into the sub-7 minute mile pace fairly easily, and then even faster on the descent.
See, it is worse than Mountainwood.
Jonathan then fell back. Now, I'm in 5th place. The kid running with Jay McNeill dropped off his pace. David eventually overcame him, and then I did. So, now it's Ieden, Jay, David, and me. It stayed that way until about mile 6.

On the back side of the mountain there is a fairly long, straight, mostly flat but slightly downhill section that runs south alongside I-65. Here is where the thoughts of racing entered my mind. Both David and Jay were within reach. I felt like I had run 6 miles at marathon pace, not like I had run 6 miles at tempo pace. I had a lot left in the tank. So, I'm thinking... Can I catch the leader? Did he fall off? Well there was this section where I could see for about a mile. I barely saw the police car. I knew then that I wasn't making up a mile in with about 4 miles to go unless he dropped out.

So, without the possibility of winning the race, I settled back to just a shade faster than marathon pace. I was running about 6:40-6:45 because it was downhill. I passed David a little before 6 mile mark. I asked if Jay was older than 40, and he believed that he was. So, the three of us were battling for masters. Again, I reminded myself, marathon pace. So, I did that. Maybe a shade faster, but never faster than 6:40.

On the way back up the hill at mile 7, I passed Jay. Again, this is worse than Cotton Row. Also, you have to climb this beast twice. Twice. Brutal. I was trying not to go into oxygen debt up the hill. I maintained a steady effort and recovered very quickly at the top. After that, Jay hung close, but I was determined that I was going to maintain a steady effort to the finish and not run faster marathon pace effort. I knew the last mile would be very fast because of the extreme downhill. But I was not going to race. Jay ran very well and hung on pretty close through those last two miles.

I was able to maintain the even effort through the race and finished in 1:05:04 which was good enough for second place overall and first masters runner. Ieden ran 58:39 which shows that he really was nearly a full mile ahead of me. Official results are here.

I would really like to train for and tackle this course in race shape to see if I could break an hour. It would be a tall order to sub-1 this thing. Kudos to River City Runners for scoring and all the volunteers. This is an awesome, low key, challenging, and well organized race.