Unofficial Meat Grinder 50K++

Saturday and Sunday’s weather report called for 97 degrees, with a heat index of over 100 degrees. The news anchors were recommending that people stay indoors, in air conditioning, and even limit pets to no more than 30 minutes outside.

In heat like that, what in the heck are a bunch of crazy ultrarunners supposed do?

That’s easy – create a new brutal running challenge, of course.

“If it a’int rough, it a’int me” – Eazy-E, NWA

Since I started running, I’ve always been intrigued by difficult challenges – be it a difficult course or difficult conditions or difficult qualifications – or a combination of all three.

Races like Spider Tynes’ Hot 2 Trot race where runners loop a 1.1 mile trail, over and over, for eight hours in sweltering Georgia August heat, or Claude Sinclair’s Laurel Valley self-supported, somewhere-around-35-miles, brutal beatdown on the South Carolina foothills trail; the relentless SCAR run that traverses difficult peak after peak after peak deep within the Smokies; The two loop run on Coosa Backcountry trail crawling 7000 feet of elevation in 26 miles; and of course the hardest thing ever for me, the Superior Sawtooth 100-mile race on Minnesota’s super-rugged Superior Hiking Trail.

Couple all that with a new running buddy who likes crazy as much as me, and other friends willing to tag along for the training, and you’ve got the recipe for some fun, challenging stuff.

Introducing the Inaugural and Unofficial Meat Grinder 50K++

If you’ve know me, you know that one of my favorite training spots is the Appalachian Trail [AT]. The approach trail to the Southern Terminus of the AT is a beautiful, and brutal, stretch that makes 8 miles seem like 18. We call it Meat Grinder, and a trip to Meat Grinder, out-n-back, will definitely be a 17-miler you won’t soon forget.

There’s a handful of us here in north Georgia training for the White River 50-mile race at Crystal Mountain in Washington state, and we are seeking as many hard, hilly training runs as we can fit into our schedule – but still nearby.

Naturally, the Meat Grinder had to fit in the plan somewhere and seeing as how we love to try new things, planning be damned, we did just that.

Sunday morning, June 28, 2009, three numb-skulls, “too-fast-Matt”, “three-kids-Tony”, and “phat-mouth-Christian” headed out self-supported, to complete a 34.2-mile run from the stone arch at Amicalola Falls Visitor Center to Hightower Gap, and back again, on 100% single-track along the Appalachian Trail.

The Unofficial Meat Grinder 50K++ was underway.

Section 1: the approach

Hehe. This is just flat-out tough. It’s no exaggeration when I say that the very first step onto the trail is a climb, and that climb continues for 1.25  very steep miles, to the parking area of Amicalola Falls.

Matt runs the whole mile up.

Tony and I run a third of it, opting to power-hike the steep gravel hill

The approach to Springer Mountain, and thus, the AT, sorta rolls like this:

Ascend steeply…

…descend steeply.

Ascend steeply…

…descend steeply.

Ascend steeply…

…descend steeply.

Three evident and distinct mountain climbs, with some rolling in between.

I’ve said this before, but I swear I can “feel” the spirits on this trail – the spirits of journeys started and dreams realized. So much history on the Appalachian Trail.

The trail is very rugged with root gardens, sharp chunky rocks and dense overgrowth. From a “challenging run” perspective, this is a great way to start a long event since it will most likely send the uninitiated back towards lodge after 8+ miles of this kind of stuff, knowing that an entire marathon distance still lies up ahead.

Section 2: headed to Hightower

I have never run past Springer Mountain and was shocked at the technical descent from the top, to the small gravel parking area at the bottom. Having communicated with Lane and Jenn Vogel (female winner of the Keys 100 race) the day before the run, they offered to leave us some water jugs at the base of Springer Mountain and run around until they found us as they were also training out there that same day.

This proved to be key as it was HOT and water was scarce. “Thanks guys!”

After we refilled our emptying water bottles at the base of the mountain, we made our way towards Hightower Gap, about 8 miles away.

Now, if you want to try this run, it’s helpful to know that this is where you can really open up if you have it in you after the approach section. The first half of this section is literally 4.1 miles of solid downhill.

springer-to-hightower

Just remember, what goes down, must come back up {wink}

Of course, too-fast-Matt was way ahead, but Tony and I stayed close together through this section, both of us already hurting a little – yes, I know, only 10-12 miles in and already hurting – but, that’s the AT for ya.

All we could say was, “Duuuuude, we gotta come back up this thing”.

It was amazing. We just kept going down, down, down, finally hitting bottom at Three Forks.

After Three Forks, there are some light rolling climbs and descents, and a BEAUTIFUL fern garden that was super immense and blindingly green. I swear, like the Celestine Prophecy, I get energy from plants that just scream energy. I believe in the energy of living plants. This is also where we bumped into Lane and Jenn, and all of us, at various points along the way, got some quality miles in with the uber-fit couple.

But, this beautiful, rather easy running is pretty short lived – maybe 2 miles-ish – before starting yet another very long descent, which eventually turns into a drastic descent, finally dumping us out into the gravel parking area of Hightower Gap.

I might also add that this is where Tony and I bumped into too-fast-Matt Kahrs, already on his way back. The kid was 4 miles ahead of us! …and looking cool as a cucumber.

Not us.

Only halfway done …and dead freakin tired!

Section 3: the climb back out of Hightower

Oh man, this is where the beatdown was coming together.

It was now rolling into the hot part of the day. We both were almost completely out of water, tired, and facing 17 more miles – six of which were about to be all uphill, followed by the return from Springer Mountain back down the approach trail.

“Oh man, Tony, what was I thinking with this run idea?”

We started making our way up the first sharp ascent, fueling up while trying to conserve water. We reached a sign for a hiker shelter and decided to brave the extra mileage in search of water. Geeez, in the Smokies, the shelters are right there along the trail – but not at Hightower – we had to hike about a .25 mile before we found the water.

Nothing like bonus miles, right?

Fueled up with plenty of water, we started a series of run a little, power hike a little, run a little… and of course, because it’s my duty in this sport, I fell over and over and over again, but we finally made it to the top of the sharp ascent, and began running through that beautiful fern garden section again, making our way back to Three Forks.

I fell one more time, looked up, saw Tony’s blue shirt in the distance, heard him yell, “YOU OK?!”, and I never saw him again…

I made my way to Three Forks, plopped my sweaty, stinkin’ butt is the rushing creek, and soaked in the cold water liked an African hippo.

Remember that 4.1 mile descent that started off section 2 on the way to Hightower Gap?

springer-to-hightower

Welp, time to go back up that…

and up…

and up…

Made it to the Stover Creek Shelter sign, but chose to try to make it back to Springer Mountain where water jugs were {hopefully} stashed for us.

Big mistake.

I seem to always do this. Like I am trying to deprive myself of what I need in order to conserve for when I might start feeling like complete death. This is a terrible strategy as it really only sets me up for complete death – not prevents it.

I only had 1.6 miles more to go to get to the base of Springer, but ran out of water with a mile to go. Any other time, who cares right? It’s just a mile…

…but at that time, it was the longest, dry-mouthed, dizzy mile I have endured in awhile …not to mention the anxiety that follows when one is waterless, tired, loopy and having difficulty thinking as clearly as one should.

But all drama aside I made it to the base of Springer where Lane and Jenn had left the water stashed behind a tree. I filled my bottles, poured the rest over my head, and started the steep, technical backside climb to the top of Springer Mountain.

Section 4: bringing it home

This is where the story turns emotional.

This return stretch from Springer Mountain to the Amicalola Visitor’s Center touched me many times in that 8+ mile stretch, in various ways.

Check this out…

So, I summit Springer to find two ladies, and a golden retriever, looking tired and spacey. I grunted a greeting and sat down to clean out my soggy wet shoes.

I made some small talk with one of the women about the heat, the climb, etc… when I noticed she had been crying – and her friend was over by a tree REALLY crying it up.

“yikes, is your friend having a difficult time on the trail today?“, I asked.

She smiled, “nope, those are tears of joy.” — “we just completed our thru-hike.”

“What???!!!”

I was shocked.

Here I was, dopey ol’ sweaty-ass me, sittin’ up here cleaning out my shoes in the middle of these two awesome hikers celebrating a MASSIVE accomplishment!

I was so stoked.

I started congratulating them, sharing my water with their dog, and talking a mile a minute. I was so impressed with these ladies and so happy for them. They hiked every square inch of the Appalachian Trail, my dream goal.

I sat up there with them for 15 minutes, taking photos for them with their individual cameras, talking story and sharing in their joy, …and it was just killer.

Man, I just can’t express how cool that moment was. I left Springer with a grin from ear to ear.

Way to go ladies!!!!!!!!

——

However, once that stoke started to taper off, I once again came to the realization that I was struggling a bit in the 95+ heat, was almost out of water AGAIN, and had no more calories.

Rats.

I started noticing I was swerving like a drunk. I was slouching and must have looked pretty bad to random hikers I would see here and there.

Just then – a butterfly swooped by my face, then came back again, almost hitting me in the forehead.

At first I was annoyed.

…but then, I realized it was my grandmother.

Yep, I’m that weird and wacko that I truly believe that my grandmother, who passed away in 2005, visits me on the trail when times get tough. Whether it’s real or not isn’t really relevant – I believe it – and that’s all that matters. If it gives me inspiration, it’s real.

I was so excited, I started laughing out loud all by myself. I thanked her for showing up …for always being there for me – alive or dead.

I clenched my fist, punched up towards the trees and yelled, “life is great!”

And I started running harder and with better form.

“Time to get back and put this one in the books.”

I ran the last 4 miles like I had just started the run – upright, positive, happy, fast feet…

…and there it was – the stone arch – the icon representing the start to the Appalachian approach trail – and the sign that reads, “2,108 miles to Katahdin, Maine.”

The finish

Just as I passed under the arch, I heard, “Beast!”, and saw too-fast-Matt standing there with a Coke, a Powerade and two bottles of water for me.

Good kid that Matt Kahrs.

Tony had finished about 15 minutes before me and was puking and resting in the AC of his car, much to Matt’s delight. We all hopped in the cold creek to soak the legs, sharing stories of our individual experiences on the trail, and laughing and smiling, all the while shaking our heads in disbelief.

If your an ultrarunner, you know what I mean.

On the ride home, Matt and I sounded like a couple of little kids, both proud of our accomplishments, but also already planning the next difficult run to take on next.

This is our fun.

We do these things because we love to run. We love the highs and lows and being out in the nature, challenging ourselves by overcoming mental, physical and emotional anguish.

I feel like I grow as a man with every single finish. I feed on the stoke. I learn more about myself and others and I become more aware of others and their emotional experiences too.

My life seems to be evolving quite a bit, and while my wife probably deserves most of the credit, running is a major contributor.

I am an ultrarunner.

Foothills and Face Plants | A Chattooga 50K Story

Jesus is Lord in South Carolina
photo: Small mountain towns in South Carolina can be “interesting”.

Beautiful but deadly

I bust my @$$ every single time I run in the foothills.

June 7, 2009, I’m sure I busted a record number of times. …at least 15, but one day later, it sure feels like much more.

And I’m not counting the constant half-fall-stumble, catch-yourself-in-some-oddball-way staggering situations. Those were way too numerous to keep track of.

  • I have a stick jammed under my thumbnail from falling on top of wet roots
  • A swollen rasberry on my arm and low back from flying backwards into a tree practically mid-air (and in front of  “Stump Jump” Chad from Chattanooga)
  • A crusty, swollen knee from, …well, I’m not sure, but it happened somewhere on that trail.
  • A sore hamstring from slipping on a rock in the Chattooga River, twisting it under my body, and creating a gnarly cramp, thus causing some loud and colorful commentary.
  • Bloody, bruised, scabby palms from trying to catch myself over and over and over …and over and over.

But, man…

When I wasn’t face first in the dirt, I was witnessing some absolutely incredible trail. The Foothills are very much like the Appalachian Trail – Thick roots. Steep climbs. Treacherous footing.

But that just adds to raw-ness of it all. To me, this is how trail running is supposed to be – not manicured and perfect.

The forest was thick with jungle-like vegetation. The rivers were loud, especially now that we have water, and the small, trail side water falls were in full effect. Here’s a full description of the SC Foothills trail from SCtrails.net:

Perhaps no other trail in South Carolina provides such an extraordinary backcountry experience as the difficult, Foothills Trail in the northwest corner of the state. Starting with the 1.2 mile Foothills Access Trail in Oconee State Park, only the first 28 miles of the Foothills Trail from the park to Upper Whitewater Falls was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979. By snaking along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, this trail and its many connectors provide almost 200 miles of hiking; most of it the rugged Appalachian greenbelt variety. The trail is accessible only to hikers, although vehicular access is available to many points along the main trail which, depending where you start, is either 80 or 85 miles long. Even so, considering numerous spur trails and connectors, an ambitious backpacker could hike the backcountry for more than a week.

In fact, the other side of the trail is where the infamous Laurel Valley is held, yet another beautiful beast.

I’m so lucky that this will be the second year in a row that I get to race a majority of the 80 miles of the SC Foothills in a single year.

Burrells Ford, the start of Chattooga 50K Trail Race

Before the race I was chatting it up with Byron Backer, who is much faster than me, and thought to myself, “just for the heck’uva it, I’m gonna try to run with him in my sight for as long as I possibily can”

After the start, he took off, and I never even saw him again until the turn-around.

{sigh}

So much for that idea – a quick dose of humble pie.

But I did start out fast, running in the first group of about 10 for the first eight miles.

I don’t know why I do this – mental problems?

I get these visions in my head of being a cheetah, like if I just try hard enough, ignore the pain, I can run with some of these front runners.

But all that happens is that I go like crazy for about 10 miles, and then burnout horribly and suffer the rest the of way to the finish.

Love me some river action

I love races that have water involved.

The Chattooga begins along some technical, single-track trail and drops runners down to the river for some extremely technical running. This year, the river was so high, some of the trail was completely underwater and we found ourselves running knee-deep through the Chattooga.

I liked that. It made me grin a lot.

The first 10 miles are run without aid. Since the Chattooga 50K race course is an out-n-back, that really means the first 10 miles, and the last 10 miles are without aid. The first 10? No problem; but, that last 10 miles is much more of a management issue as the need for water and fluids has increased.

There are three sections in the first 10 miles that make it easy to judge your progress. If you plan to run this race next year, you can use these clues to gauge where you are (assuming you run natural, without GPS):

  1. Waterworld: This is where runners are hugging the river, and sometimes running in it. It’s very technical with thousands of thick roots, mud and hairball footing. Enjoy.
  2. Pine straw heaven: This is where you can open up. When the trail moves away from the river, runners are cruising along the tops, and ridges, on wide, soft and less technical pine-needle-covered trail. Yum.
  3. Campgrounds: When the trail drops back down to the water, participants are running through a series of camping spots. This is actually helpful since the trail can get confusing and campers can be a big help. “yea, runners went that way!”

And then it’s just a nice, mellow climb out, crossing SC Hwy 107, and on to the first aid station.

What goes down, comes back up

I forgot how tough this race is.

I don’t know why. It’s run on the same freakin trail as Laurel Valley! Of course it’s gonna be hard.

But the Chattooga deceives you.

It takes you out for a nice little challenging, but easily manageable, run all the way to the turn-around at about 16 miles …with plenty of gradual downhill, forgiving uphill, and false sense of superiority.

After the first aid station, there is a boatload of downhill. Similar to the last six miles of Oak Mountain, but at Chattooga, you gotta come back up after ripping all that downhill. Faster people started to catch me as I really had no business running with the pack I was with in the first place, and I was starting to struggle from the fast starting pace.

This is the section where I met “Stump Jump” Chad from Chattooga, and where he witnessed my super gnarly, body-twistin’, leg-ganking, mid-air assault on a trail side tree.

I think he felt bad for me.

I felt bad for me.

I slowed way down and sorta ran in a daze. Too much ego to admit pain, yet crying like a baby inside.

That really hurt.

So, remember, if your keeping notes – make up time here, between miles 10-16-ish, because things will begin to get ugly very soon after.

Is this the same trail?

yup.

It’s more of that Chattooga deception.

After the turn-around, that once fun and fancy downhill action turns upside down. It’s funny how you rarely notice how long a section of downhill is until you are forced to turn around and hit it the other way.

I am confident that some Foothills spirits are at play here. There is simply no way that those climbs back out are the same trails that I just ran in the other direction. Somebody, or something, stretched them into much longer grinds.

So again, taking notes? You had better have your uphill running legs left for at least some of this section, or you will lose a LOT of time getting out of here.

But once you do get out, your return to the 10-mile (now 22 mile) aid station will be a happy visit.

Unless you drop.

Only 10 miles left

10 miles is a long way and should never be referred to as only-anything.

More Chattooga deception.

Actually, maybe not. I think I have this one figured out. The thick roots, rocks and ridiculous footing of the last ten miles were in fact there on the way out, but the legs were strong, fresh and nimble. The ankles solid and adaptable.

Not now.

Everything hurts.

Stepping on those roots now sends a shockwave through your hamstrings and quads. The calves start letting you know they’ve had a enough and are ready for pulled pork sandwiches and a comfy seat at the finish line.

It’s comical navigating some of these roots and muddy sections with sore body parts. Slow, goofy-looking, lots of cussing.

Falling when you feel like this is a complete body jar – too weak to catch yourself, too slow to make it happen anyway.

An all-out thud.

Like a sack potatoes.

But, that beautiful monster smiles on ya with more and more incredible trail beauty. It just keeps coming at ya. Huge ferns, flowering trees, birds a ‘chirpin’ …and long views down the Chattooga are there for the taking on this trip back, and I was stopped in my tracks more than once to stare at the river sights.

I wish I was smart like David Ray and carried a camera during races.

Dunk yo’self

But the all-time, best thing about the return trip is the last 4 miles, where the trail climbs back down to the river’s edge. Ah, heaven.

Picture this:

  • you’re hot
  • you’re tired
  • you’re thirsty (’cause you probably ran out of water)

…and there’s that lovely, crisp, cool river water – rushing over the rocks with a roar, shimmering in the blaring sun. You know it’s in the 80’s. You know you want to do it…

Well, I do it.

Shirt, shoes, shorts, socks, hat, …everything.

I just laid there, in the river, and drank and drank and soaked and soaked.

Bridges too, I’m not a bit scared. If, I see cold rushing mountain water, I enter it.

One mile to go

I always love the kids at races that are there to support dads and moms.

I came up on this bridge, ironically, the place where I got terribly lost last year by going stright instead of crossing, and there’s a little kid sittin’ there waiting on his dad. He hiked about a mile down to the bridge to wait for him.

As I approached, he yelled, “One mile to go!”

And although I was unable to let out much more than a grunt, it was a discernible “thank you” grunt.

I could tell he felt helpful with his big ol’ smile, so I found a little more energy to thank him for helping all the runners out.

Cool kid.

The finish

2009 Chattooga 50K finisher awards
photo: RD, Terri Hayes makes custom finisher awards for everyone.

Nothing clever. Nothing fancy.

Just a great group of people cheering at the finish. Families, friends – a real good time.

The race director arranged for a chef who had all kinds of great things going on the grill, in the coolers and on the fruit tray.

Terri really stepped it up a notch, while still providing the old school ultra experience that many of us enjoy. That’s saying something seeing as how she does it all for free (accepting donations on race day)

$20 is bargain for an ultra these days.

I finished in 6:58, so I can say sub-seven {wink}.

Good for 15th place overall.

I don’t think any more than three people sub-6’d this race. Byron Backer came close at 6:00:32 – it’s just really hard.

At least half of it is really hard.

—-

Next up, running in Mexico? Oh, yes I am.

Slapped Silly at SweetH20

Sweetwater Creek mill ruins
photo:  civil war era textile mill ruins, smack dab in the middle of the park.

I forgot how hard the SweetH20 50K really is.

In 2007, the inaugural year for the Sweetwater race, and my first year running ultras, I completed the race in around eight hours and fifteen minutes (8:15), and last year, I shaved off an hour and twenty minutes, to finish in 6:56 — so this year, I set another lofty goal, hoping to shave off another hour and some change, and roll in somewhere around five hours and forty-five minutes (5:45) — a huge goal, but I felt strong and determined.

You’d think after running the race twice previously, and writing race reports from each experience, plus managing the SweetH20 race web site, and training on the course from time to time, I’d have some idea how to approach this race by now.

Nope.

A family reunion

Local races are starting to feel like family reunions for me. I love showing up and seeing many of the same faces, shaking many of the same hands, and all the familiar hugs.

I especially like the hugs.

On race morning, the buzz around packet pick-up was energizing. Everybody looked happy, and excited. The weather was b-eau-ti-ful, and looking around at the field of talent, it was beginning to feel like some records were about to get broken.

It was great having the opportunity to cut up with ultrarunning icon David Horton.

Dr. Horton is a true legend in the sport of ultrarunning, and for someone like me, so new to ultrarunning and just starting to dip my big toe into the experience bucket, it was surreal to spend some quality time with him pre and post-race.

I met lots of new people that knew me via the run100miles blog, the ultralist and/or Facebook, and as much as some of the old-timers and grouchies like to beat up on Twitter, Facebook and technology in general within our sport, it’s really cool to see the power of social networking and ‘same-interest’ communication flourish.

It’s simply fun to share your stoke and excitement with others who are feeling the exact same ways.

30 more seconds…

…was the last thing I heard. I started looking around, overwhelmed by the number of runners at SweetH20 this year. More than twice the number of runners from last year. I exchanged some positive vibes with those around me and…, bang!

The first mile of the race is on a road, and I shot out of the gate for a number of reasons:

  1. I really wanted to get in the front pack so I wouldn’t get caught up in the traffic jam when everyone entered the forest, and the single-track trails.
  2. I had some lofty ‘personal best’ goals of shaving 74 minutes off of my last year’s finishing time on this race course.
  3. I wanted to see how the speed training has been working out and how long I could maintain a fast foot turn-over.
  4. And, as always, I was testing how long I could maintain POSE running style.

I found myself running with the front 35 when we ducked into the trails for 30 miles of challenging single-track. I knew damn well I shouldn’t be running in this group, but I decided to roll with it anyway.

Once again I got some trail time with one of the most interesting characters of the Southeastern scene, John Dove, and really enjoyed catching up with him, learning from his experience regarding my upcoming 100-miler at Cascade Crest, listening to his cycling stories, …and then watching him do this crazy, sliding-save-thing, down the spillway, at the first water crossing, the effects of which would later serve as a cramp machine for him throughout the rest of the race.

He still finished sub-6 …even hurt. Sheesh.

Christian Griffith and John Cremers rip the Sweet H20 trails
photo: John Cremers leads Christian Griffith, exiting the white loop.

High ho – high ho, to “Top of the World” we go

You know it’s coming.

You talk to yourself silently the entire first 8 miles or so to the spot.

“How am I going to approach top of the world this year?”

“Should I try to run? …walk when fatigued?

“Should I walk the entire thing hard, and use the banked energy for speed later?”

“Wonder how hot it’s gonna be out there all hot and exposed?”

Cross the bridge, hang a right… and,

THUMPIDY, THUMPIDY, THUMPIDY

“Dude …look out!”

“Whoa!”

WHOOOOOOSH!

“Holy sh$@!, did you see that!”

Dude behind me nodded, grinning from ear-to-ear, and said, “yep”.

Right after I crossed the bridge a big ol’ deer came sprinting down the hill, jumped the creek, and flew past my face about 10 feet in front of me. Close enough where I could feel the energy of all the mass flying past me.

Freaked me out.

I started looking for a second one coming up behind him, since they usually run in packs, but nope – he was solo, and I sighed in relief.

sweeth20 50K course profile
photo: SweetH20 course profile – click for larger version

You never get used to these hills

“Top of the World” is just plain hard. The series of hills consist of steep, rocky, calf-clenching climbs with even steeper, quad-pounding descents. The bright sunshine and heat was an added challenge since the hills are completely exposed, and the weather on this day was climbing into the mid-80s, with brilliant blue, cloudless skies.

During this first trip, runners have a very steep approach climb up a leaf-buried hillside before beginning the series of four hills – one baby, three killa’s.

Runners run down, and power hike up, run down, power hike up, run down, power hike up, run down, power hike up – zero flat – straight up, then straight down.

There is no easy way to handle it – just keep the ol’ head down, the heels up, the stride short and grumble-to-yourself as you move at a snail’s pace.

You just gotta open up

From a pure running performance perspective, I wasn’t having the best day. Mentally, I was excited and happy and driven for a solid course PR (personal record) – but my legs were just not cooperating.

I felt fatigue from the first tiny climb of the day, and that dead-legs feeling hung around pretty much the whole day. This was a very weird, unusual feeling for me. Typically, if I’m having a bad day physically, I struggle mentally too; but not today. I stayed very upbeat, happy and alive despite my weak physical condition.

There are some tough climbs, and lots of ‘em at SweetH20, but there are also many nice sections where runners can really open up, let the legs go, and chew up some miles.

I couldn’t seem to take advantage.

I felt like I was pretty much running the same, slow, mincy pace whether I was climbing, descending or running down a flat, pine-needle covered speed section.

I just couldn’t find a fast gear, ever.

But, if you’re ever considering this race, keep that in mind – as hard as it is, there are some really fast sections to take advantage of if you’ve got it in ya.

Halfway home

After the halfway-point aid station, runners enter the yellow loop, personally, one of my favorite sections in the park. A beautiful, flat and fast approach drops you off at the base of a very steep, creek-bed type climb that really chips away at runners this deep into the run. I saw many runners stopping on various sections of this climb, resting against trees, and trying to manage this lung-buster.

“Sorry to be breathing down your neck”

There was a girl behind me, huffing and puffing like crazy, but in a perfect rhythm, which I was sort of timing my steps to.

“No problem”, I said.

She must not have been too bad off – she passed me at the top.

Dying for a dip in the raging river

You spend a significant amount of time running with a wide view of refreshing looking river water. The water was calling me and I was dying to take a break and just flounder in the water like I would at Laurel Valley; but I knew the rope-assisted river crossing was coming and chose to wait for that little bit o’ fun instead.

We slugged through the backside powerlines section, up a short gravel road, and ducked deep into sloshing, knee-deep bush-whacked trail, before sprinting down a very steep, leaf-covered approach to the marquee race challenge – the river crossing.

And once we got to the rope, were presented with a waiting line, 15-runners deep, waiting to cross the river.

“Doh!”

Because of the conditions of rapidly moving water, the rescue team responsible for this potentially problematic crossing limited the rope to one runner at a time. It was definitely the right decision, and as much as I wanted to rogue it, I didn’t want to risk disqualification nor make things difficult for the RDs and volunteers.

So I stood in line like a good little boy.

I was bothered for about 30 seconds, but quickly got a grip.

This is what ultras are all about: Dealing with the unexpected. How you deal with the challenges you encounter in a very long, difficult mountain race can be very telling of your overall character.

Negativity breeds negativity.

And once I shrugged my shoulders and shelved the 5:45 race goal, it lifted a lot of self-induced pressure and actually made my second half of the race a lot better than the first half.

I’m 15.

What?

After the crossing, I ran with a 15-year old kid. It’s humbling to be toughing it out with a 15-year old only steps behind you. He seemed shy and didn’t really say much to me during the hour or so we ran near each other, but then, halfway up one of the climbs he yells out, “you know what? After I finish, I’m going to Zaxby’s for a basket of chicken fingers and a Coke!”

Running a 50K, but still I kid. {grins}

For some reason that made me laugh as I think of my own step-fella’ and the teenage love affair with chicken fingers.

The kid sort of dropped behind around the 22 mile point, but I hung around at the end to see him finish and shake his hand.

15 years old, y’all…

Let’s make it just a little mo’ harder

From the time you cross the river, the only thing on your mind is heading back out to “Top of the World”.

Here’s where I caught up to Florida runner Jeff Bryan, and together we ran down Jack’s Hill at a hobble. I want to thank whoever left the styrofoam cooler, at the top of the single-track steps, leading to Dave and Orlando’s aid station. It was full of ice cold Cokes and Mountain Dews, and came at a time when I was out of fluids, thirsty and craving sugar.

God, that Mountain Dew was good.

…and necessary, because the second trip to “Top of the World” hits you at about marathon-deep, 26 miles, and is harder than the first time you had the pleasure.

The race directors bring runners around the backside of the mountain this time, throwing a couple-four bonus climbs at ya, before taking you to that same grueling approach to the same series of grueling climbs known fondly ‘roun here as “Top of the World”.

But once it’s over, it’s time to sniff for the barn.

And I was sniffin’.

I was hot, fatigued and ready to wrap this beast up.

But no…

Feeling a little frisky, the RDs decided to cut a climb, straight up, from the trail along the river, to the blue-blazed ridge a few hundred feet above.

I mean straight-up. This is no exaggeration. Straight, freakin’ up!

This hurt me bad.

Mentally, it popped my “all-the-climbs-are-done” balloon, and physically it wore me down to a point where I had to use small trees for leverage, stumps for rest, and endured doubled-over gasping periods for some small semblance of recovery along the way.

This was totally unexpected and the grade was easily over 75% for a majority of the trek up.

“Please let this be it for the surprises”, I prayed to the trail Gods.

Put the hammer down

Perhaps “put the hammer down” is grasping a little for pace description, but I definitely was ready to finish and decided to run as hard as I could until I either fell out, or finished.

I passed quite a few people who seemed content to walk it in from the last aid station, but nobody I knew or I would have heckled them to start running.

I was fighting the fatigue with all I had, just kinda hoping that even though I lost 20 minutes at the river crossing, as well as a couple of minutes of self-induced, missed-the-flags bonus miles, I still had a shot at a personal record for the course.

Turned the corner, looked at the clock, 6:25:34 – a tad over 30 minutes better than last year, and a new personal course record for the SweetH20 50K.

But, if I choose to shave off the time I was stalled at the creek, I could claim a 6:05.

That’s cheesy and I won’t do it, but at least I know what I’m capable of doing under different conditions.

SweetH20 is big time now

This race will fill very quickly next year. It’s got its mojo now. It’s run very well, with an incredible volunteer crew, great RDs, and heavy southeastern following.

The Virginia runners came down here and did very well, but I’d also be curious to see what some of the Alabama gang could do here – we better see y’all next year.

10 Big Ups

I sorta hate to do this because I don’t want to forget anyone or any cool situation, but I wanted to take a moment to share 10 performances or circumstances that stoked me during this year’s race:

  1. My friend of almost 10 years completing his first ultra distance – in 6:45!
  2. More friends, Colt and Dale, completing their first ultramarathons – both also breaking seven hours!
  3. John Nevels super-impressive 5:01
  4. Matt Kahrs – what can you say about this kid? He’s a phenom and he’s coming for you West coast guys at Diablo next weekend. Watch this kid because I think he’s about to change things. You heard it here first.
  5. Kate and Jon, ultraunning’s newest couple and uber-nice and positive characters, finishing together in 5:39
  6. Sally Brooking, female masters winner and absolute hero of mine, rolling in at 5 hours, 24 minutes. Sheesh, girl.
  7. Marty breaking 5 hours. Less than five hours on this course is impossible for me to even wrap my head around. Dude is a STUD.
  8. All the GUTS runners and fellow club members finishing strong on a meaty course.
  9. The Rogue Runner volunteers, Lerch’s, Cindy, Dave, Orlando, and everybody else who kept the positive vibe flowing and supportive cheering coming!
  10. Seeing the biggest snake I have ever seen in my life on the blue-blazed trail with Andrew Hackett, Jeff Bryan and few hikers.

I’m not going to congratulate Spurgeon because I kinda wanted to beat him. I never really had that goal until I found myself in the same pack as him a few times, and kinda-sorta thought I could reel him in.

Nope.

No chance.

Never saw him again after about the second trip to TOTW.

Will this report ever end?

Maybe not.

I continue to feel more and more love for the sport of ultrarunning. I can’t believe, as I roll into June, that it was this very month, June 2006, when I first laced up in Las Vegas, NV to run three miles down the strip, working towards my new goal of becoming a runner.

Just’a fat, lethargic man in clunky fat-boy running shoes with wide-eyed, kid-like goals and dreams.

Sticking to it has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. I have made hundreds of new friends all over the country, and a few internationally, and I’ve learned that I LOVE to run.

Anything and everything…

I’m running all over the country, with all kinds of unique, cool and interesting people with opportunities popping up all around me and I’m loving every, single minute of it.

So, the question is – who’s headed to Chattooga 50K next weekend?

Get some!