Today, January 30, 2012 might just be the first time I’ve seen the sun in Georgia all month.
Alabama feels my pain.
Apparently this has been the 7th rainiest month in Huntsville history and leading up to the Mountain Mist 50K, chatter was developing on the social networks, running lists and face-to-face conversations concerning the conditions of the Monte Sano trails for Saturday’s race.
“It’s gonna be a mud-fest” pretty much summed up the overall sentiment.
Getting the Hang of This “Steady” Pacing Thing
It appears, and I say appears ‘cuz I’m known for flip-flopping completely like I never actually learned a damn thing, but it APPEARS that I’m finally starting to understand pacing better – and its all because of this pesky ankle injury.
And yes, I know y’all are sick of hearing about it.
I’m sick of it, too.
Weezy’s really sick of it, and uses it as an open opportunity to clown me, but screw him, he’s a camo-wearin’ redneck.
But, the injury forces me to take races easy. I’m constantly concerned about the weakened ankle, and I take extra special care to manage pace and foot placement accordingly.
Easy to do on the road. Not so easy on the rocky, muddy Monte Sano trails.
Aid Station 1 – 6.5 miles
I’ve been focusing on shorter racing lately and hadn’t run an official ultramarathon since UTMB in August. Yikes! I was concerned that I might have trouble running 31 miles at this point in my training, so humble was the name of the game (if that’s possible for me).
My race plan was simple:
- Carry nothing but a small water bottle. No nutrition.
- Swipe something light at each aid station. Rely on sports drink.
- Stay no more than 1 minute at any one aid station.
- Run slowly, enjoy the day, and just see what happens.
Here’s my best advice for Mountain Mist, and some might not like me giving it away to newbies to the event, but when that gun goes off, it’s in your best interest to run the first mile, fast, with the front pack through the park streets. You might get a little gassed, but once runners dip into the trail, things slow down a bit and you’ll recover, but best of all you’ll avoid a nasty “conga line” that develops very early.
Funny thing is, a lot of people are starting to learn this little tip so that first mile is getting faster and faster every year.
I was running behind popular GUTS runner Sally Brooking and Monte Sano local Rob Youngren for that first 4 mile gradual climb to the dirt road at the top. I kept the pace slower than last year, hovering around 8:45-9:15, and paying close attention to heart rate. If I started to gasp at all, I slowed down.
One thing that makes Mist such a great race is that although there are some really tough sections, there are also some really fast, runnable sections. The winding trail just before aid station 1 is a perfect example of this.
Can I get a witness?
6.5 miles done and I feel as good as a runner can feel.
Aid Station 2 – 11.5 miles
After the first aid station, runners begin a short, but steep technical drop, which this year was also ridiculously muddy. I caught up to Sally again and noticed that she was also taking the technical downs with a little more care than usual. Sally’s dealt with ankle/foot issues on the trail in the past, so I followed suit.
Hitting the powerlines trail, I hear Sally yell, “Christian, do you see any footprints?”
First of all, no, I did not; but second, that little experience reiterated for me what a smart, experienced trail runner Sally really is. I would have never thought to look for footprints. I was just cruising along oblivious. It was because of her that we quickly figured out where we went wrong, and fixed it without any lost time.
Let’s make sure I remember this at Fuego Y Agua 100K in Nicaragua next month.
About 8.5 miles in comes the first significant, gnarly climb – K2 – a short, but steep crawl that really reminded me how much I need to train more for trail climbing before the Bighorn 100-miler in June.
I power-hiked 90% of the climb.
Sally passed me cuz she rocks climbs.
At the top comes more of that fun, rolling Monte Sano trail running. Since we were up high, there was minimal mud and a pack of us dipped and rolled at a steady pace all the way to aid station #2.
It was during this section that I started an all day affair of leap-frog with an Alabama local named Will Barnwell. All day long from this point until the very end, I’d pass Will on the climbs and flats, and he’d crush the downs leaving me in the dust. It was a running joke all day (no pun intended). I got him in the end, but only because Mist finishes during a long climb and flat finish. Had it finished on a descent, he would have gotten me.
Aid Station 3 – 17 miles
This next section of Mist after aid station 3 has the only part of the course I do not like, and to make it worse, I had to be extra slow and careful not to turn my ankle. The only way to describe it is to imagine yourself running down an old dried-up creek bed. Ankle-biting rocks about twice the size of softballs, that move, shift, and roll and there is absolutely no avoiding it. No side trail. nothing. You HAVE to run across it for about 1/2 mile and its slow, painful and annoying.
This entire section was pretty brutal. The mud following the psuedo creek bed was probably the worst of the entire day. You can try to write about how muddy something is, but unless you were there, it’s hard to really grasp it. I could really see it eating people up in this section and I passed a lot of people who either went out too fast, or who were getting slowly whittled down with mud challenge and frustration.
Running through thick, slippery mud is tough because, like sand, it sucks the life out of you. Each step takes more effort and careful planning than it would otherwise. It’s physically taxing and mentally exhausting.
Still strong. Still steady. And a little bit lifted from passing runners along the way.
Aid Station 4 – 20.5 miles
It’s time to focus on the upcoming waterline climb.
The foreshadowing leading to waterline is another unique and interesting element of Mountain Mist 50K. The section starts out very rocky, and aside from a few short stints of clear trail, it pretty much stays that way until you approach the beginning of the waterline section.
What is waterline? Waterline is one of the unique factors that so many associate with this race. A long, gradual uphill along a stretch of trail built on top of water pipe that eventually dumps runners into the mid-section of a waterfall.
I like to fill my water bottle from the falls even though people think I’m nuts. I did it again this year. Giardia be damned.
After the waterfall crossing, runners have to climb out from the falls, using both hands and feet, on extremely muddy, slippery rocks. One slip and you could easily find yourself bouncing to the bottom of the ravine, so its steady as she goes.
Runners then cross a second waterfall bed and begin a climb that would make Barkley veterans proud. Well, kinda, because although its as steep as something you’d find at Barkley, it’s much shorter of a climb – about 1/4 mile straight up from the second waterfall bed.
If you’re a newbie to Mist, this might make you cry.
I’ve seen it happen before.
Aid Station 5 – 25 miles
Yahoo! Ultraunning list member Heather Whiteside was manning this aid station and it was nice to see a friendly face. I was still running comfortably, albiet sick as Hell of the mud, and after a few pleasantries, blazed out of that aid station quickly. Although I had no real time goals, I did want to ensure I ran under six hours.
Miles 26-27 can feel really long. Muddy jeep road to nowhere. But, I passed a few guys here, and before long I began that familiar EXTREMELY technical descent into McKay’s Hollow. Keys 50-mile and Peanut Island 12-hour race winner Tatiana Spencer was hanging out here, which was cool, but very unexpected, and she asked if she could run into the hollow with me.
“sure, come on…”
And she did.
A couple of minutes later I heard someone bearing down on me from behind, and I thought it was her, but nope, it was that pesky Will Barnwell hammering the descent into McKay’s like it was flat. I simply don’t know how he did that with all the mud, technical drops and horrible footing. Kid can hammer some downs, y’all…
I really do like McKay’s Hollow. For some reason, it just feels magical down there. Always remind me of the 1985 Tom Cruise movie, “Legend”
It’s a really beautiful section of forest and trail, but no, I haven’t seen any unicorns down there.
Of course, being that we were now in the muddy flats, headed towards the third and final gnarly climb called rest shelter, I caught Will and we also caught another dude whose name I did not get. He had lost his water bottles and asked if we could share any fluids with him.
I tossed him my water bottle, about half full with sports drink, and told him to keep it until the finish. I knew I could down some coke at the top of rest shelter and then it was only 1.8 miles to the finish, so I was good. No worries. He looked like he needed it bad, so it was cool wid’ me.
One less thing to deal with.
As I made my way up the switch-back climb of rest shelter, I saw a familiar bald head in the distance.
“Fajitas! What up fool?”
He was kinda limping and not motoring along in his usual style, so I figured he must have gotten hurt. Remember, this is the dude who ran 280 miles 3 weeks ago at Across the Years, and someone who’s performances have been the awe for many of us throughout all of 2011.
We chatted for a second, and I passed, …but, I know Joe. He’s just like me, and although the pleasantries of conversation were just that, he hates to be passed and many times will fight back when it happens. I expected today would be no different.
Aid Station 6 – 30 miles (only 1.8 to go)
At the top of rest shelter, I skarfed down three cups of Mountain Dew and took off. I just knew that Joe was going to come back and get me and I wanted to fight him off, the bald bastard.
The last section is short, flat and fast and since I was feeling good, I had no problems running 8:30 pace along this stretch.
I was so very proud of myself.
Congratulating myself for a great, even-paced race, and proud to be kicking a pretty strong pace to the finish.
Nobody was gonna catch me, right?
Then I heard the footsteps.
“Oh no, here comes that ^&%#! Joe,” I cussed to myself.
This deflated me more than Joe catching me.
Why? Because Rob ran the race course throughout the previous night, then, turned around and ran the official race afterwards. He had ~60 miles on his legs and he was passing me in the last half mile in the 8s.
I was in awe.
Much respect unicycle-boy.
Finish Line – 5:43:15
Cool – only 28 minutes off last year’s time. In those challenging conditions, I’ll take it.
But the best thing about the finish was how I felt. Usually, I’m flat-out crushed, and usually because I went out too fast and suffered for many miles.
Not this year. Not this race.
The even-paced, chilled-out approach netted out pretty well for me and I felt like I could turn around and run it again …but I ain’t Rob, so I didn’t.
What Did I learn?
Man, I’ve learned a lot through this injury, the Skarfing Project, and ALL the sessions from the school of ultrarunning hard knocks, but specific to this race, the following were keys to what I call a successful race (regardless of no PR):
- Pacing: This was key. I had brief periods of overall fatigue, but I never felt rough.
- Weight loss: ran the race at under 190 lbs – for you whippets that’s still huge, I know.
- Carry less = Less stress: Just a water bottle. After all, aid is there for a reason.
- Strength training: my body felt strong. Nod to the deadlift training.
- Consistent running: Very little holes in my marathon training. Strict consistency.
And that’s it.
Mountain Mist #5 in the books. Five more ’til I get that jacket.
*** Here is the Mountain Mist Garmin data showing course, elevation and pace information.
…and I must mention the ride back to Atlanta with my inebriated compadres, Fajitas and Weezly Weezle “the redneck rat”. Some funny conversation went down in that car, y’all. Oh, to be a fly on the wall, …er, windshield. Comic relief. We could’a sold admission.